Tuesday, 29 June 2010

36 hours in Fisherfield

Those familiar with the Scottish countryside will know that the Fisherfield Forest is misleadingly named, for it is not a tree forest but a deer forest, a historical term for a hunting ground. My weekend visit to this remote and spectacular region presented an opportunity to commit fully to the concept of the Bushbuddy wood-burning camp stove.  I was slightly nervous about striking off into this practically treeless wilderness without any fuel; the penalty for failure would have been crunching my way through uncooked dehydrated stew and washing it down with cold coffee

I decided on a through route, starting near Loch a'Bhraoin,  taking in the remote summits of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Beinn Tarsuinn, A'Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor before walking back to the road at Corrie Hallie. My main objective was to spend some time on the country so I carried a tent and spent two nights enjoying the solitude of the wilds.

Reflections on Loch a'Bhraoin, 2300 hrs Friday night.  The weeks around the solstice are among my favourite of the year.

I was heartened to see cattle ruminating on the flanks of the lochside moraines as I walked the shore.  It filled me full of nostalgia for the sheiling days of pre-industrial Scotland, when  one could enjoy a summer making cheese in a hovel to the melody of lark and pipit. Though I sometimes lament the enforced industry of my current capitalist lifestyle, I would not swap it for transhumance. It is easy to take a rose-tinted look back and see only the availability of leisure time, forgetting that it was tempered with a lack of opportunity and the spectre of famine and disease. That said, our experiment in capitalism has not been in progress long enough for me to be confident that it will prove to be superior in the famine avoidance stakes.

A sandpiper accompanied me along the lochshore, shrilly crying in defence of eggs or chicks. Probably it was a dozen or more working in relay, but so tightly defined were their territories and so smooth were their changeovers that it seemed as if a single bird escorted me for the full 6 km length of the loch.

A riot of colour. The yellow is tormentil, if you know the the pink and blue please leave a comment and save me having to look them up.

A close of the blue one to aid identification

Meallan an Laoigh, Loch an Nid and a distant An Teallach from the east ridge of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair.

I was very taken with this island in the sky, a little table-land of Torridonian sandstone on the ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn. If I was a rock star I would take my band up there and shoot a video.

Near the summit of a'Mhaighdean looking towards the unusual low ridge of Beinn Tharsuinn Chaol with the great cliffs of Ben Lair and the Torridon hills beyond.

A'Mhaighdean summit, where I met a guy who'd run in from Poolewe, the only person I saw all day. View down Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch towards Poolewe.

After more than 11 hours on the go I was glad to get my pack off, set up my tent up and get a brew on. Gleann na Muice, An Teallach beyond

Shenaval bothy on Sunday morning, living up to its reputation as one of the most crowded in Scotland. Beinn Dearg Mor in the background.

All in all an awesome trip and great to get the Munros nabbed after the weather forced me to content myself with a lesser prize last time round.  To my great relief the Bushbuddy was a tremendous success - a genuinely viable lightweight alternative to gas, even in the barren Lewisian environs of Fisherfield.

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Monday, 21 June 2010

Keep Off the Grass: A Grand Tour of England

Officious men wearing bowler hats will ensure that you keep off the grass in Oxford, but whose job is it to make sure you don't stray too far from the footpaths, bridleways and byways of rural England?

During last week's tour of the south it dawned on me that Ordnance Survey maps provide an unexpected insight into the cultural differences between Scotland and England. South of the border the maps swarm with green lines of varying solidity, each denoting an acceptable route through the countryside. Footpaths, bridleways, restricted and unrestricted byways, long distance routes, 'other routes'. And then there are the orange lines denoting permissive footpaths and bridleways, on which the right of access may be withdrawn at the whim of the landowner.

It is unclear what sanction awaits the independently minded rambler who leaves his map at home, instead using his aesthetic sensibilities to plot his course through the countryside. Presumably he may find himself in a local magistrate's court, answering a charge of trespass. I expect that examples might be found where he would be sentenced by the owner of the land on which he trespassed. How quaintly, repressively, medievaly English such a fate would be.

Maps of Scotland - on which such paths, bridleways, routes and byways are conspicuous in their absence - must seem strange and even frightening to the visiting Englishman. How is he to know where it is acceptable to walk? The happy truth is, of course, that the Scottish tradition of free access to the hills - now enshrined in law through Access Legislation - means that one may quite legitimately rampage through the countryside at will. The knowledge that - should the urge possess me - I am at liberty take off in almost any direction contributes greatly to my sense of wellbeing. So accustomed am I to this freedom that England feels constraining, almost claustrophobic.

Oxford - the ultimate destination of my tour of these strange southern lands - elicited genuine feelings of claustrophobia. As one approaches within fifty miles of its famous dreaming spires there is a palpable increase in the level of congestion.  The city has the sense of a museum; its ancient road layout means that there is simply not enough tarmac to accommodate the traffic that crawls angrily through its streets. The constant din of these impotent motors reflects off the limestone walls of the colleges, assaulting the ears of those unaccustomed to this mild form of torture. Much of the city is off limits, hidden behind these fank-like walls, which funnel and corral the city's infuriating mix of bumbling, bewildered tourists, haughty, plum-mouthed students and impatient, exasperated townspeople through its congested thoroughfares. When I think of Oxford I picture the neat stripes of its immaculately manicured lawns and the simple message of the signs that adorn each and every one of them, 'Keep Off The Grass'.

I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the south; climbing on the sandstone crags of Northumberland; visiting family in Durham; walking the North York Moors; meeting old friends at a wedding in Oxford. But it is great to be back home.

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Thursday, 17 June 2010

Northumberland's sleeping rainbow

The most memorable aspect of my recent trip to Utah was the vivid colours of the exposed rock, as if they were being illuminated from within with a red light, much as blue light appears to emanate from within the ice of a glacier. So striking are the allsort stripes of Capitol Reef that the Native Americans called it the 'Land of the Sleeping Rainbow'.

The photo above is of a rock below East Woodward Crag in Northumberland. A corner has been chipped off, revealing the bright pink rock that lurks beneath the dull brown of its weathered, lichenous exterior; as surprising as finding a toad estivating in dry desert earth.

It reminded me of the formerly sooty facades of Glasgow's sandstone buildings, almost all of which have now been cleaned of their industrial grime. If the same sandblasting treatment were to be applied to the sandstone outcrops of Northumberland, that hibernating rainbow might be reawakened, dazzling the visiting climber with desert hues reminiscent of the American southwest.

(Note to local ethics police - I am not seriously proposing that any crags be sandblasted)

Monday, 7 June 2010



Top: Eigg and Rum from the Croft Campsite, Arisaig
Middle: The tropical sands of Morar
Bottom: View over Loch Morar to the Cuillin of Skye

It's possible that the coastline between Arisaig and Morar has the highest concentration of campsites to be found anywhere in Scotland. I've neglected this area until now, only having visited it in passing. This weekend was the time to put that right and we loaded the van and set off for the Croft Campsite. I selected this one based on the online reviews. Two things appealed: lack of shower facilities (keeps the crowds away) and reports of the proprietor's laid back attitude (nothing worse than an officious warden bothering you while camping). It was indeed a splendid site, a large expanse of flat grass, fine views to the Small Isles and Skye and direct access to the beach. The beach is quite unusual in that it is composed of shingle; ground shells and some quite large fragments of coral. I was dismayed to learn from the campsite owner that many of the coral fragments may be a consequence of commercial clam dredging. No matter where one looks nowadays there is an example to be found of the destruction of beauty in pursuit of profit. Presumably it is elements such as these clam-dredging vandals who are opposed to the establishment of a marine national park off the west coast. Another pertinent example is the recent wildlife crime raid on my near neighbours, the Moy Estate. I have had my eye on them for a while and will be watching the case with interest.

Comparisons are often drawn between the white sands and turquoise sea of the west coast and tropical beaches. Nowhere is this more valid than at Morar. The wind has blown the fine white sand into a satisfyingly steep beach, fringed and shaded by the fresh foilage of springtime trees. It brought to mind Cape Tribulation in tropical north Queensland. Donning my flippers and snorkel I took to the water and swam among spiky towers of brown seaweed. Crabs scurried along the sea bed beneath me. The water was so pleasantly warm that I stayed in long enough to become mildly hypothermic.

Pleasant though it was to lounge on the beach I was not totally at ease. The wild hinterland had been calling to  me from the moment I arrived. Old friends were visible to the west: Beinn Bhuidhe, rising above the  waters of Loch Nevis, unseen but prominent in my consciousness; the pointed summit of Sgurr na Ciche, Matterhorn of Knoydart. Much as I would love to set off into the empty country in this most beautiful season - long days and warm weather, with the summertime  menaces of midge and bracken not yet in full swing - there was no time, or was there?

While perusing my map my eye was drawn to a track which skirted the southern edge of the intriguing plains that link Loch Morar to the coast. I presume them to be a raised beach,  moraines flattened by the action of the sea when its relative level was higher than at present. After 5 km or so on the flat the track cut up onto the hillside, passing near the summit of  Carn a'Mhadaidh-ruaidh (hill of the red fox lair?) before descending to join the main road by Arisaig House. I left my map with my  support crew so they knew where to meet me in 90 mins and set off from Kinloid at a jog. It was only when I reached the end of the flat that I realised the seriousness of my undertaking. The whole enterprise was reliant on the track depicted on my 21 year old map actually being discernible on the ground and leading to the agreed rendezvous point! Fortunately it was for the most part and it did. Some adventurous cyclists had even pushed their bikes over the hill in the recent past though I would not recommend it.

The afternoon was warm and the run a great illustration of the superior endurance of the human being over almost any other animal. The Border Terrier is a hardy dog, bred to follow horses at the hunt, yet I had to stop at every water source to splash him with water to cool him down. What will stick in my mind is the view north over Loch Morar with its wooded islands and sandy beaches, over the sea to the Cuillin of Skye. So many more adventures await in this tiny corner of Scotland alone....

It is spring. Enjoy it.

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